Alcohol and gambling

We were sent to Methodist chapel every Sunday in 1950s Lincoln – morning service and afternoon Sunday School. This gave a good grounding in bible stories and hymn singing, and table tennis at the social club. Two messages became memorably ingrained into us – the evils of alcohol and gambling.

In the later teenage years, we tried beer at the local pubs. It turned out to be a good social lubricant, especially for a quiet lad like me, and we soon learned not to drink too much – the effects were most unpleasant. At university I discovered wine and that was that.

Gambling was a different matter. My dad did the football pools every week, so I got to looking at the weekly sheet that he had to fill in. At the back I noticed the ‘fixed odds’ where you could bet on the outcome of particular matches. This seemed more attractive to me than the general lottery entered by my dad. I used to notionally fill it in and then check on the results – I usually ‘lost’. But I became aware of the inner ‘pull’ of fixed odds betting, so never tried it out for real. So I can understand the attraction of the fixed odds betting terminals that have been the subject of recent controversy in the UK, where the maximum stake in a betting shop is being reduced from £100 to £2. Good thing too.

Gambling is highly regulated in the UK yet, since the relaxation of attitudes in the 1960s, plays a significant part in the economy. My own attitude to gambling has changed little since the 1950s, apart from the odd raffle ticket. Maybe that’s one up to my teachers at Chapel, or down to a wartime-induced attitude of frugality.

At times I’ve come across people who became addicted to alcohol or gambling – for them, yes these things really are evil. And Alcoholics/Gambling Anonymous provide a necessary salvation.

Featured image from 1857 report by James Haughton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Light and Dark

I have a vibrant memory of Sunday evenings in the 1950s, walking home after visiting grandparents in the nearby village. We walked on the pavement in almost complete darkness through the countryside. The stars were so bright, and my dad pointed out the common constellations (the Plough/Big Dipper, Orion…) and the Milky Way.

The Milky Way

There were street lamps, still gas powered in those days. They cast small oases of light in the pervading darkness, an essential aid when the Moon was not up. As we navigated from oasis to oasis, they gave a feeling of security.

In later decades street lights became ever brighter, until more recently people realised that this over-brightness was polluting any chance of being aware of the majesty of the night sky – the pervading influence for all earlier human generations. So, they’ve become more subdued and direct light downwards rather than everywhere. On our residential estate there’s now a small sense of those earlier oases of light in the darkness – although the power of modern leds is inevitably much stronger than the old gas lamps.

But there’s a new kid on the block: a proliferation of lighting from residential houses, notably porch lights, and lights at the end of the drive. Some throw stronger light than the actual street lighting. My senses are repelled by this unnecessary brightness and the accompanying waste of energy. Why? When a cheap sensor could turn the light on only when needed. If every house did the same we would rarely experience the darkness of night.

We need to make friends with the darkness, it is as much a part of life as the light. Only then do we and our children see those gems in the sky, perhaps inspiring an interest in astronomy or its twin astrology.

Human eyes are actually very good at seeing in low light conditions. So please can we turn those lights out, except when needed.

And make friends with the dusk, one of the truly magical parts of the day (I’m sure the dawn is also, but I rarely make it.)

Featured image of gas lamp by Tulane Public Relations (Uploaded by AlbertHerring), via Wikimedia Commons
Image of The Milky Way by John Fowler, via Wikimedia Commons

Mrs Cotton

I heard that Mrs Cotton died recently, aged 95. The Cottons were our next-door neighbours in 1950s Lincoln, ordinary people getting on with their lives, friendly enough but not intruding, helping out when help was needed, co-operating when necessary. Reliable.

Mrs Cotton had her mother living with them in the house, until she died. After Mr C died, she lived out the rest of her life in the same house. As you do, if there’s no reason to move.

Reminds me of the guy who served me a pizza in a Lincoln takeaway in the early nineties. He’d lived in Lincoln all his life and said he’d never been out of the city, not even once.

I was perhaps lucky that education gave me the route to escape! But maybe I should stress that the Lincoln of today is no longer so enclosed and provincial, now that it is a thriving university town.

Miss Abbott

The teacher I recall most fondly from my primary school years (ages 7-11, then called junior school) in 1950s Lincoln was Miss Abbott, probably then in her mid twenties. She was our class teacher in the second year, so I was probably 8-9. She was basically an effective teacher and a ‘nice’ person – a word I was subsequently exhorted to avoid by teachers seeking to encourage a broader vocabulary.

south common lincolnOn the most memorable day, the whole class went out for a walk to Lincoln’s South Common, where we had an outdoor lesson on nature, and particularly the wildlife in the ponds that are found there. This was my first experience of pond dipping. And we played games on the grass.

It cannot be a coincidence that my most memorable learning experience took place out of doors in nature, rather than all the many other days spent in the classroom in front of a blackboard.

Sadly, there may have been frogs, sticklebacks and damsel flies that subsequently suffered due to the enthusiasms stimulated, but the passion for nature has remained.

Picture of pond on Lincoln’s south common
by John Bennett, via Wikimedia Commons.
The pond in memory was smaller than this one.

Mrs Watty

Mrs Watty lived two doors away from us in 1950s Lincoln. She was pretty well off compared to the rest of the street, having a car long before anyone else and having people in to do things for her.

We had but a nodding acquaintance with Mrs Watty until I was an early teenager. She never seemed to go out of the house, other than in the car. Her age I know not; I just saw her as ‘old’.

Presumably Mrs Watty found out that I played chess at school, and she let it be known that she would like to learn to play chess. Thus it was that I embarked on a very brief career as a chess coach and went round to see her, along with my chess set.Read More »

Mr Stanniforth

Although most of the main adult influences on my life growing up in 1950s Lincoln came from family members, this was by no means all. Mr Stanniforth lived near us and was a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist chapel. At a very young age my brother and I had laid foundation stones for the new Swallowbeck chapel, overseen by my grandma, a staunch Methodist. So we were duly sent to the service on Sunday morning and Sunday School in the afternoon.

To be honest, the services were a bit boring, apart from once a year when an evangelical circuit preacher gave us stirring sermons and a good singsong. At Sunday School, I guess I learned quite a lot about the bible and bible stories, useful background in later life. And I loved playing table tennis at the youth club when I was a bit older.

Mr Stanniforth was a jolly, balding, portly middle-aged man, always reminding us about next Sunday whenever he saw us. My biggest memory is of him repeatedly telling us that ‘alcohol is evil’. Even my young mind thought, can alcohol be evil, when many of the adults I know go to the pub from time to time? Maybe this set in train doubt about religious organisations from an early age, probably the opposite of what was intended.


Auntie Edie

It is the early-to-mid 1950s, I’m around 8 years old. We arrive by train from Lincoln at the old Manchester Exchange Station. Uncle Wilfred meets us; we transfer ourselves into a taxi, cases affixed to the side, and set off. At the first corner the cases take on a life of their own, leave the taxi and slide across the road. After a brief panic, cases are soon retrieved and re-affixed. Wilfred chuckles, my father says ‘crikey’. Wilfred was always chuckling, could always see the funny side of things. My brother and I rather liked him.Read More »

Uncle Ive

Ivor was my mother’s father’s brother. Everyone called him Ive. I remember Ive being small and thin, with a half-empty pint of beer on the table in front of him. We mostly saw him and his wife Clara on family occasions when beer was involved.

Clara was, by contrast, large and fat. She drank stout. Ive and Clara were the living image of all those fat lady/ thin man picture postcards you saw on trips to the seaside. (What was so amusing about the image of a fat lady?)

We only saw them on family occasions, but heard their names frequently. I think they were weekly members of the Saturday night out at the pub – out in the countryside at nearby Auburn, with my grandad, his second wife and the one of my parents who wasn’t babysitting.

In the 1950s there was no problem in going to the pub in the countryside, having a few pints and coming back slightly merry. This was even true when I first started driving in the 1960s. Breathalyzers were first introduced in the UK in 1967.

Featured image is of the present-day Royal Oak in Auburn.

Uncle Frank

Uncle Frank was actually my mother’s cousin, but older. His father was a brother of mother’s mother. The father was killed in WW1, and Frank grew up with my mother for a while. Despite this they were not close.

Frank had married Ivy and they lived by ‘The Ramper’**, the main A46 road between Lincoln and North Hykeham. We occasionally visited them. On one memorable occasion in the late 1940s/ early 1950s, we saw a television for the first time, in their house, after walking there across fields. It was one of those huge polished wooden boxes with a tiny 8 inch screen in the middle and a very speckly picture. It was quite impressive nonetheless. We only got our first television in 1953, in time for the coronation.

Ivy had somehow become Muriel, and seemed to have developed ‘airs and graces’, according to mother – who was not impressed by our being given tinned tomatoes on toast for tea. We did not see much of them.

**  The Newark Road was the old Roman road and was called the Ramper by my grandparents. I think this relates to this being an old Roman road, and the association of their roads with ramparts.

Featured image of an early television set, the RCA 630TS (1948) by Marcin Wichary from San Francisco, via Wikimedia Commons

Uncle Arthur

Uncle Arthur was actually my mother’s uncle. My strongest memory of him is on Lincoln High Street outside the Saracen’s Head Hotel, just near the Stonebow, the stone gateway spanning the High Street. It was the mid-to-late 1950s. Arthur was chasing after his hat. My father, brother and I were in stitches, so failed to help.Read More »

Uncle Budge

We did not see Aunt Helen very often while I was growing up in 1950s Lincoln. Actually she was my mother’s aunt. Budge was her husband.

Although living in a terraced house near Lincoln City’s Sincil Bank football ground, Helen was ‘posh’, their child was a choirboy at the cathedral. It almost felt like visiting royalty. Budge was in contrast large, cheery, hearty, funny, apparently a normal working man.

I particularly recall visiting on a Friday – fish day. Budge always had fish on a Friday – I remember a large piece on his plate, maybe skate, which he soon demolished. A big thing was made about Budge always having fish on a Friday.

The rest of us, including Helen, just had an ordinary ‘tea’ – maybe potted meat sandwiches, cake if we were lucky, and a cup of tea.

This seemed odd to us, as we always ate the same stuff together as a family. I think we were seeing the vestiges of times when (a) men regarded themselves as special (b) there was hardly enough food to go around and (c) the working man’s life was physically hard so he needed extra food.

We were lucky!

Featured image of skate by Titus Tscharntke, via Wikimedia Commons



Uncle Paul

Uncle Paul turned up at our house on his battered old pushbike once a year in the 1950s. After a cheery hello to us kids, he’d have a cup of tea, maybe a piece of cake, and a chat with my dad.

Then the old bags hanging on his handlebars would be filled with apples from our trees, eaters and cookers – it was always that time of year.

Totally laden, Uncle Paul would set off ever so slowly, a bit wobbly at first, and gradually disappear off down the road.

Uncle Paul was a distant relative of my dad and, I think, lived out in the sticks of the Lincolnshire countryside. We were townies, on the edge of Lincoln. But this gave us a glimpse of life in rural Lincolnshire then – sharing natures bounty where possible, travelling everywhere by bike.

Next year Uncle Paul would be back again to repeat the ritual.

Featured image is not Uncle Paul but about the right age
– old man by Klearchos Kapoutsis, via Wikimedia Commons

Uncle Wag

My mother used to talk about when a distant relative Uncle Wag came to stay during the war (WW2 for her generation). She didn’t talk about the war much, but then Lincoln was itself not hugely affected, receiving just the odd few bombs.

Wag came for a few weeks, I think probably as respite from the blitz in London. He used to sit in the living room smoking his pipe.

The big thing about Uncle Wag was that he was delighted to be able to smoke his pipe in the house. At home in London, he had to smoke outside. If his wife found him smoking inside she would throw the pipe out of the window!

Most people smoked pipes or cigarettes then, but not my mother. The health hazards were unknown or kept quiet. I wonder what the equivalent might be today – I suspect it’s those dreaded pesticides that are sprayed on all our food crops, but I could be proved wrong. They seem to be doing a good job of killing off bees.

The picture is not Uncle Wag, but Bing Crosby,
taken at around that period by Franklin D. Roosevelt,
via Wikimedia Commons


Hallowe’en didn’t exist in 1950s Lincoln. Apart from my birthday, the only exciting thing that happened at this time of the year was Guy Fawkes’ Night or Bonfire Night, on 5th November. And it really was bonfire night – we had a bonfire in the back garden and daddy lit a few Roman Candles, sparklers, jumping jacks and bangers from the local shop. Health and safety didn’t exist then, but once the local bobby stopped us kids setting off fireworks in a field in the runup.

I would only have known about All Hallows Eve – the day before All Hallows Day or All Saints Day – if we’d been into churchy things. My brother and I were sent to Methodist chapel, and none of that nonsense went on there.

So it was a bit of a slow motion surprise to me as Hallowe’en gradually emerged over the years, as a festival to be widely ‘celebrated’ in a particularly ghoulish manner, pumpkins and all. It eventually even seems to have lost the apostrophe. I believe this emergence has been driven by school teachers spotting a good project, businesses spotting yet another good commercial opportunity and parents struggling to keep up. It seems to be more widely ‘celebrated’ in the US, but the UK is rapidly catching up.

Well I guess it’s fun for a lot of kids, so I shouldn’t be churlish. But, trick or treat? What on earth is a treat for some of our rather spoilt kids these days?

Maybe if we celebrated this as the beginning of winter, the dark part of the year, as were the origins of this festival in pagan days, it would seem more appropriate. There is actually a very rich and respectable tradition that has evolved from the earliest days, involving ghoulish things, closeness to the spirit world, bonfires, etc. eg as outlined in the Wikipedia entry. So maybe I need to get with the programme! But shouldn’t it include the bonfires as well?

At the races

While Serena Williams was winning Wimbledon for the nth time, daughter and I were strolling through Chester. It happened to be race day. We arrived on the road by the race course and leaned against a convenient wall with a good view of the course at 2.45.

The rows of bookies’ boards showed the next race to be in twenty minutes, so we waited and took in the jolly scene. Drinking, eating junk food and chatting seemed to be the main occupations. Men wore suits, some in groups where drinking a pint of beer down in one seemed a popular activity. Some of the younger women wore skimpy attire that appeared rather inappropriate, given both the cool wind and the inelegance of the parts uncovered. This was no Ascot.

There was a certain fascination in observing the changing odds on the bookies’ boards. Eventually we placed notional bets and awaited the race. Number 6 ‘Sovereign’ seemed a good choice given the Brexit situation.

The race started somewhere invisible to us, and eventually the horses appeared in the distance at the far side of the circular course. They gradually came round the bend and then suddenly they were upon us, all effort and straining, pounding of hooves, excitement in the crowd. Yes, it was exciting! Number 6 was there in the mêlée, around fourth and seemed to be gaining.

After that ten seconds of excitement, it was suddenly all over. From our angle we couldn’t see who had won. It turned out that ‘Sovereign Debt’ came in second – the bookies’ boards had not been not wide enough for the full name. All that waiting for ten seconds of excitement!

But maybe better than my first racing experience, 52 years ago in 1964. The last ‘Lincolnshire Handicap’ was being run in Lincoln (after that it moved to Doncaster). This provided a good excuse to go to my first horse races. I wandered through the crowds soaking the slightly seedy atmosphere, had a drink and a sausage roll, placed a bet based on a ‘tip’ someone had given me – ‘Linca’ seemed appropriate. I waited around the crowded finish line, saw nothing of the race except the last second or two as a great pounding of hooves was followed by a load of horses suddenly flashing by. Who on earth had won? Well it wasn’t Linca! Arriving home I was dog sick from the sausage roll, and vowed never to go racing again.

I guess the point is showing off, drinking and gambling – and that ten seconds of excitement!

Belisha freedom

In my childhood of the 1950s the way you got across a busy road, although there weren’t many busy roads in Lincoln then, was at a crossing marked by flashing Belisha beacons. These were introduced in 1934 by then Minister of transport Leslie Hore-Belisha. Black and white stripes were soon added on the road surface, and these became known as zebra crossings. Their essential feature was that pedestrians have priority over traffic while on the crossing.

Traffic levels began to increase, and I remember in 1962 Lincoln was chosen, along with Guildford, to trial some new-fangled Panda crossings. Here there were the beacons, but only lit some time after a pedestrian pressed a button signalling they wanted to cross. The balance of power was changing; the pedestrian no longer appeared to have right of way.

The Pandas didn’t really take off, but in 1969 came Pelican crossings which in various guises, are still with us today. The pedestrian presses a button indicating their need to cross, which eventually triggers traffic lights to change in their favour. In practice, this often means a significant wait.

Pelican is a sort of acronym from PEdestrian LIght CONtrolled, giving an illusion of control by the pedestrian. Actually, the balance of power has swung decisively to the motorist; the pedestrian no longer has right of way, in the interests of traffic flow.

Thus was a fundamental freedom to cross the road gradually restricted as we increased our great love affair with the motor car.

Sadly, the Pelican approach has subsequently been over-used. New crossings seem to be Pelican-style as a norm, rather than zebra crossings. Simple observation shows that on a little-used (by pedestrians) crossing, much time is spent waiting to no good purpose by both pedestrians and vehicles – and when it’s foul weather or in hot sun, guess who suffers more. The old-style zebra crossing with Belisha beacons is far more efficent, with little waiting by either.

Knutsford’s main through road has 2 zebras and three pelicans. I know where I choose to cross.

Bring back the zebras and Belisha’s wonderful beacons!

Featured image of Abbey Road zebra crossing
by Josephenus P. Riley, via Wikimedia Commons


When in need

Growing up in Lincoln in the 1950s you were never far from a public toilet, one of the great legacies of the Victorian age. Going ‘up town’ from the south you passed an ample facility by the South Common, a rather poky men-only facility under Gowts Railway Bridge, toilets in St Mark’s Station and extensive stalls for shoppers in the city centre underneath the High Bridge. Other towns were similar. That era was perhaps a golden age for the public toilet.Read More »

The most precious

‘I have always held and am prepared against all evidence to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have’.

John Ruskin 1819-1900

Lincoln cathedral is a part of me. Its image and presence are always there within.

I am the boy cycling around the countryside, always on the lookout for that sudden view across the flat Lincolnshire plain of the unmistakeable cathedral standing proud on the hill – from the south on my regular bike rides through Hykeham and Auburn – from the west near Saxilby by the Roman-built Fosse Dyke, along which pleasure boats ventured from Brayford Pool towards the River Trent – and from the east near Southrey, where we loved crossing the River Witham on the chain ferry.

I am the teenager on the bus going to secondary school in the centre of Lincoln, two miles from home – we always sat at the front upstairs and watched the cathedral getting closer and closer, often forced to wait as steam trains traversed the two level crossings on the High Street.

I am the student at that City School, the old technical college. Every Wednesday at lunchtime we would independently climb up the steep Greestone Steps, along by the girls’ High School. A friend and I often kicked a tennis ball along the way, defying it to get past us and roll down Lindum Hill into the lower city. There were a few scares, but it never did.

At the top the steps open out into the cathedral precinct and we walked in the shadow of its mighty walls, often pausing to inspect the statue of Lincolnshire poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the green, before walking on another mile to the school sports ground – to endure or enjoy as the case might be.

The annual school service was held in the nave of the cathedral, so we spent slightly bored minutes there as the service slowly progressed, but at the same time absorbed the experience of those magnificent gothic arches.

Lincoln Imp

I am the football fan, regularly watching Lincoln City play at their Sincil Bank ground. City then frequented the lower reaches of the old Second Division. We shouted ‘come on the imps’ or ‘up the imps’, long before I knew they got that nickname from the stone imp in the cathedral.

I am the adult who made pilgrimages to that cathedral when I could fit them in – the view of the west front from the castle, the walk around the outside, the internal tour of nave, choir, the imp itself high up on a pillar, cloisters, library and the chapter house where parliament once sat. And sometimes a look at the cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta [now on display in Lincoln Castle], and possibly a climb up the 338 steps of the cathedral tower. This was always something special, picking out all those familiar places from this unfamiliar angle. On windy days the tower sways. On clear days you can see Boston Stump, nearly 30 miles away. You used to just turn up and climb on your own, but you now have to go with a tour.

West front from castle

Sometimes the tower was closed. I remember fairly regular reports in the Lincolnshire Echo that someone had jumped to his or her death from the great tower, but I believe this is now much more difficult.

In more recent years, an evening walk has seen the cathedral floodlit into an achingly clear etching in the night sky.

No trip to Lincoln was complete without also visiting the Usher Art Gallery [now simply the Usher Gallery]. What always attracted me the most was a number of excellent paintings of the cathedral by the English landscape painter Peter de Wint, whose wife was from Lincoln.

Model of Lincoln Cathedral with original spires

According to Wikipedia, for 238 years, from 1311-1549, Lincoln Cathedral was the highest building in the world at 524 feet. That is a far longer period of dominance than any other building since 1300. It only lost its preeminence in 1549 because the spire on the central tower collapsed and was never rebuilt – Lincoln was never again as rich as in that early medieval period. It seems that, had this spire remained, Lincoln Cathedral would have retained top spot until Ulm Minster was completed in 1890, at 530ft – that’s 579 years! [Add to that the fact Lincoln Cathedral sits on top of a steep hill!]

The spires on the western towers were removed in 1807; even without spires the building remains beautiful and dominates the city.

Lincoln Cathedral also has the third largest by floor space in England, after St Paul’s in London and York Minster.

It was probably the childhood inspiration that came from frequent contact with this great building that led to my lifelong interest in cathedrals and great religious buildings. Having visited many of the great European gothic cathedrals, I can report that, for me, none surpasses Lincoln for its overall effect – probably because of its magnificent hilltop location. I recall only Laon in France as being similarly dominant over its surroundings. Certainly Chartres is more mystical and has superior stained glass windows, as does the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Amiens and Cologne are more massive, St Denis and Reims are perhaps more historic, and so on. They each have their own special features. But overall Lincoln is, for me as for John Ruskin, simply the best.

Some images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:
view from castle by Jungpionier
the imp by Dave Hitchborne
spire model by Aidan McRae Thomson